School refusal – take a book to bed not the mobile phone

November 17, 2023

School refusal is a complex issue that affects a significant number of students and their families. It can be challenging for everyone involved, from students and parents to teachers, principals, and psychologists. Understanding underlying causes of school refusal and various strategies that can be employed to address it are crucial for effectively supporting students. For chronic school refusers, it is not that they won’t attend school, they simply can’t. Their level of anxiety and psycho-social distress means they are just unable to go to school.

With the end of the school year fast approaching, it is an opportune time to encourage school refusers and poor attenders to a gradual and supported reintroduction to their classroom programs. Take a step-by-step and flexible approach. Despite being a busy period, the final weeks of school often have the advantage of being a fun time in the school calendar with various end of year events and presentations. Successfully linking school refusers back to school in the final weeks, even if only for small periods of the daily program, can make a big difference to longer term participation.

Postponing interventions until early in the new school year means school refusers miss engaging end of year activities, such as watching, helping, or even participating in some small way in school musicals, plays, camps, transition and orientation programs and other celebrations. These end of year events offer opportunities for school refusers to make ‘personal achievements’ in their school participation, and for some, breakthroughs in how they feel about themselves. Postponing interventions at this stage of the year could further entrench school refusing behaviours and make it even more difficult to encourage school refusers to attend in the first week of term one next year.

By staying at home, the school refuser can become ‘invisible’ to and less understood by school staff. Most parents/carers of school refusers want their child to attend but feel they don’t have the support or the skills to help their child. They often don’t know how to work effectively with the school. Parents/carers need to be encouraged to be responsive and to plan how to work with the school.

Early intervention can help to avoid an escalation from school reluctance to poor attender to school refusal. At home, a first step might simply be for the child to take a book to bed at a reasonable hour from Sundays to Thursdays and to avoid all use of mobile phones or other electronic devices in the hour or two before bedtime and at bedtime. Tiredness can be a disincentive to facing up to school.

On many occasions, school leadership staff, classroom teachers and wellbeing teams can work with a parent, child, or family to successfully engage poor attenders and school refusers. Once at school, a successful return usually involves teachers making simple academic, social, and emotional adjustments to support the child. The most important thing a school can do to help re-engage a school refuser is to implement a thorough, but flexible Attendance or Return-to-School Plan developed with the child and their family and reviewed regularly. It is the gold standard for building trust with the teacher, the child and family. It also provides an anchor point for communication between home and school.

The recently updated Psych4Schools ebooklet Working with children who school refuse (revised) provides strategies that teachers and other professionals can use to assist students who are reluctant or resistant school attenders and those who are school refusing. In addition to helping with school attendance plans, four appendices accompany the resource:

  • Early intervention strategies for parent/carers of school refusers.
  • Teacher strategies to help chronic school refusers cope with common barriers to returning to school.
  • Script suggestions for speaking with parents of a child who is school refusing.
  • Chronic school refusal – an intervention plan for psychologists.

Every school refuser needs an individually tailored program that involves parents/carers, teachers, and as soon as practical other professional services. The child should not be forced back to school. A gradual reintroduction usually works best. It exposes and supports the child step-by-step to facing up to and coping with anxiety-promoting situations in small doses. The child will also benefit from reassurance and practical support to ensure they feel safe and welcome at school.

The updated Psych4Schools ebooklet also provides details and links to targeted resources that parent/carers can read at home. Psych4Schools members can provide parents/carers with a free copy of the ebooklets:

  • For parents/carers who may be struggling emotionally provide the Psych4Schools ebooket For parents: Reduce your stress and worry.
  • For parents/carers who wish to help their child to deal with stress, provide the Psych4Schools ebooklet For parents: Assist your child with stress and worry.

End of year events provide the opportunity to identify short term, specific and rewarding keepsakes, for example being recorded in the class video, being granted a special privilege by a classroom teacher or school coordinator and the opportunity to catch up with supportive teachers and other staff before year end.

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Kind regards,


Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer

P.S All the best as you manage the many demands at school, and at home.

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